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When he opened City of Ink in February 2007, it became the epicenter for an emerging music and arts scene overnight. There was also something unique about the assembled team: They were young, fly, and fashionable. Co-owner Tuki Carter and artist Chris McAdoo made up half of on-the-rise rap group Hollyweerd, and Bailey's apprentice Corey Davis was forming the duo Mach Five and his street/pop-culture magazine Greedmont Park. Carter's inroads into Atlanta's music industry would bring notoriety through star clients including Young Jeezy, Big Meech, Rick Ross, and Usher, while Bailey's underground ethos balanced them out.
"We just had a power team," says Bailey, who harnessed the crew's good looks and marketability for frequent photo shoots and hosted monthly art exhibits on-site. "It was all visual. We just kinda created an image for ourselves."
Pretty soon people were coming to City of Ink for more than tattoos: They were coming for inspiration and some much-needed authenticity. Major rap artists filmed videos on location, including "Tatted Up," the regional street anthem featuring Fabo of D4L that resonated with City of Ink's movement. It didn't take long before the small screen came calling, too. With the success of TLC's "Miami Ink" and its "L.A. Ink" spin-off, City of Ink seemed like the perfect setting for a tanner version of the tattoo reality show.
"Everybody came to us; every network, every production company. It's like they were reading from the same script," says Bailey. "They wanted drama."
The usual script dished out familiar roles: the inept co-owner/business partner, the loose cannon, the shop peacekeeper, the self-professed ladies' man, the wide-eyed male virgin, and the eye candy/love interest. Still, the opportunity seemed big enough and the money good enough that they almost didn't mind being temporarily typecast. Shot in 2010, the resulting pilot was helmed by the same production team behind "Miami Ink" and future episodes of "Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta."
"They were telling us to act, read the script, all that shit," recalls Bailey. "They even gave us Adderall to keep us focused." The basic premise was that Bailey and Carter were beefing co-owners who constantly argued. But when they "staged an argument on camera," Bailey felt they'd gone too far. "We don't argue for real; that was fake. They told us to fuss. Tuki loves to act. We did that so they wouldn't get into nobody's love life or private life."
It went against everything Bailey and City of Ink symbolized. So they turned down the deal — four times.
After the first episode of "Black Ink Crew" aired four weeks ago, one of Bailey's 16,000-plus Twitter followers asked him what he thought. "I gave my opinion," says Bailey, who eventually deleted his initial tweets out of respect for the people on the show. His real beef was with the final edit. "That they could fit that much negative imagery in 60 minutes, it blew my mind out."
About an hour into our conversation at his studio loft, Bailey gets a call on his cell phone. It's someone from Black Ink Gallery — the Harlem, N.Y., shop where the show is based. The black tattoo community is such a small universe that Bailey knows them well, and has even referred former City of Ink apprentices there. For the next 30 minutes he and the caller, who is not part of the show's cast, engage in a passionate conversation, in which Bailey explains that his initial reaction to the show wasn't based on any negative feelings he has for the members of Black Ink Gallery themselves, but for a system he feels is dead set on pimping and pandering to the lowest common denominator.
"Black reality shows are often saddled with the burden of representation," as Jon Caramanica wrote in his recent New York Times critique of the post-"Jersey Shore" breed of subculture-specific reality shows. That goes double for a show focused on such a narrow slice of black life. Neither VH1 nor Big Fish Entertainment, the production company behind "Black Ink Crew," were willing to provide comments for this story.
While Bailey empathizes with the Harlem crew's choice to appear on the show, he hopes they haven't compromised their careers by season's end. It's the reason he felt the need to document the rich history of African-American tattoo artists with Color Outside the Lines.
"I just want it to be respected, man. I want the history to be told more than anything, because once you know the history of something, then it's harder to disrespect it."
Now that Bailey's "semi-retired," he seldom pops in on City of Ink. Instead, he leaves the daily operation up to his crew, while seeing no more than one client a day at his private studio or taking time out to paint. Tuki Carter, now a signee to his former tattoo client Wiz Khalifa's Taylor Gang Records, has since left to pursue his solo rap career. And Corey Davis has taken Carter's place as the shop's co-owner. But the group still feels more like a family than anything else.
During a recent photo shoot, the ever-evolving team gathered inside for a rare moment with everybody present. As Paper Frank, a burgeoning visual artist and one of Bailey's former apprentices, blasted Trinidad James' "All Gold Everything" and cracked jokes between shots, it felt like a surreal high school picture day on which the teacher was absent. Reluctant to take center stage, even at the photographer's behest, Bailey stood in the middle of the fray eyeballing the camera's lens through heavy, post-smoker's lids and an easy smile. As the camera lens clicked away, he seemed pleased that the players assembled were not ready for prime time.
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